Thursday, April 20, 2017

New York City Street Food

Kabir Ahmed cooks to order during the early shift in his food cart. Photo: An Rong Xu, for The New York Times
A Day in the Life of a New York City Food Vendor
Great story in a recent edition of the New York Times profiling Kabir Ahmed, one of New York City’s more than 10,000 mobile food vendors. Now 46, Mr. Ahmed, a Bangladeshi immigrant who moved to New York 23 years ago, operates a halal food cart with two partners on Greenwich Street, close to the World Trade Center. They are there all year long, rain, hail, snow or shine.

If you have ever been to New York City, you will of course, have seen many of these vendors on the streets of Manhattan, and to a lesser extent in the other four boroughs. In four extended visits to the city, I think I have eaten a New York hot dog just once, but I have eaten many ‘chicken over rice’ meals from food carts similar to the types in this New York Times feature.
These vendors are a fixture of New York’s streets and New Yorkers’ routines, vital to the culture of the city. But day to day, they struggle to do business against a host of challenges: byzantine city codes and regulations on street vending, exorbitant fines for small violations (like setting up an inch too close to the curb) and the occasional rage of brick-and-mortar businesses or residents. Not to mention the weather, the whims of transit and foot traffic, and the trials of standing for hours, often alone, with no real shelter or private space.
The location of Mr. Ahmed's food cart
Using Google Maps and their Street View software, I took a ‘walk’ down Greenwich Street using as my guide, clues in the article—“near the World Trade Center”, “in front of the BNY Mellon building”—and found what I am certain is Mr Ahmed’s food cart on the corner of Greenwich and Murray Streets.

If you have ever wondered, like I have, about the source of food used by these vendors, the article provides the following:
The food comes from a commissary kitchen attached to the garage in Long Island City, Queens; the city requires that food carts be serviced and supplied by a commissary, and there are many of them, of varying sizes, with different owners, all around New York. At an extra cost, this one has provided everything Mr. Ahmed needs for the day: heads of lettuce, a few dozen tomatoes and potatoes, ready-sliced halal lamb, several bags of boneless chicken thighs, two 12-pound bags of basmati rice, four large plastic containers of potable water for cooking and washing, clamshell containers and napkins.
While I have had many a ‘chicken over rice’ plate, the article praises Mr. Ahmed’s chicken biryani:
“…regulars know to ask for the chicken biryani, flecked with fried onion and cilantro, garnished with half a hard-boiled egg, all for $6, with a drink. He’d like to raise the price, but worries that he would lose customers.”
Stock photo of food cart meals
Wow, six dollars! This must be one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest meal of this type in New York City. Later in the article readers learn that after paying the man who delivers the cart to Greenwich Street (and then returns it to a secure garage at the end of the day), and also paying the garage, Mr. Ahmed earns about $125 after splitting the day’s takings with his colleagues.

Again, Wow. For an eight-hour shift this works out to around $15/hour, which may seem good given the low wages most American workers receive, but to me this seems low given the amount of work that goes into running such a food service.

The article, by Tejal Rao, provides a fascinating glimpse into a way of life that millions of visitors to New York—and millions more locals—have come to rely on for their daily meals and snacks. I will be back in New York for almost three months from mid-June, and you can be sure that I will make a point of seeking out Mr Ahmed's food van for one of those chicken biryani meals.

Read the full article here… 

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